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Shalev’s third English translation (Esau, 1994) is set in post-WWII Palestine. Here, the author’s usual village legend-spinning turns out to be half stuffing and half roast goose. Illegitimate young Zayde Rabinovitch has three alleged fathers—and each contributes something or other to the boy’s physical appearance. Widower Moshe Rabinovitch, who was reared by his mother as a yellow-haired girl until he was 12 and nature could no longer be denied, provided Zayde with those blond tresses (and later with a farm); Jacob Sheinfeld, who once raised canaries—and who was abandoned by his beautiful wife Rebecca because of his infatuated pursuit of Zayde’s single mother, Judith—gave him droopy shoulders, a fine house richly furnished, and empty birdcages; and cattle-dealer Globerman, as coarse and sensual as Fyodor Karamazov, bestowed upon him huge feet and plenty of money. Zayde, who suffers under his name partly because it means “grandfather,” is born to Judith in her 11th year of living alone, her ex-soldier husband having deserted her and fled to America. Each of Zayde’s three would-be male progenitors declares himself to be the child’s actual father. The high point arrives with the appearance of an Italian ghost whose wondrous ability to imitate human forms, voices, and actions seems to be leading to a fulfilling end (which may reveal Zayde’s physical parentage) until a blow from the gods robs us of any resolution—any emerging from character, that is. The story, as retold to or by Zayde during the course of four meals from the hand of Jacob over three decades, gasps with incidental lore and pithy sayings, which may or may not fit the plot but which prick dash hopes that Shalev will ever come to grips with his tale. Even so, the village mythologizing and the proverbs (“He couldn’t say the names of wine, but his frying pan laughed and his knife danced in his hand—) will warm the hearts of many.

Pub Date: March 22nd, 1999
ISBN: 0-88001-635-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999


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